How to Still Care About Halo

The following is a crosspost from the HBO forum, in a discussion started by Cody Miller about retcons of Halo's continuity by the latest game in the series, Reach. Some fans (namely Hawaiian Pig) take exception to David "Evil Otto" Candland, Bungie UI Designer, saying canon arguments aren't important. The image is from another post of Cody's, seemingly showing that Installation 04 isn't located in the Milky Way galaxy any more.

After reading part of this thread at HBO and finding myself in agreement simultaneously with HP and Evil Otto, I had another series of thoughts about how works are viewed by their creators, as opposed to their fans.

A work like Halo is not the creation of a single person, even if some people contribute more to some aspects of it than others. It is also not a static thing. While certain key concepts may endure from the start of brainstorming until the declaration of a Golden Master, many of the details may be in flux for months or years. Listening to the commentary by Jones, Staten and O'Donnell for the cutscenes of the first two games, it becomes apparent how different the series might have been if Bungie had made different decisions.

For those involved in its creation, "Halo" is more than just what ends up on the disc. It's more than what we get through other channels, as well-- although in other cases it may be less than that, or merely different. Some elements may be cast in stone early on, others vigourously debated and carefully considered, and some minor details might end up in the game at the whim of an individual writer, designer, artist or programmer.

All that material passes through the lens of the released product and then passes into the hands of the audience, after which it takes on a life of its own. Incidental details that ended up in the game without being noticed may take on huge significance as fans leap to inescapable conclusions about their impact on the big picture. The individual tastes and experiences of fans, and their interactions with other works of art and literature, subtly color the reception of the work, and lead towards some interpretations and away from others. In the hands of the audience, the work takes on a life of its own, a life separate and different from the intents and perceptions of its creators.

The process, from initial concept, through development and publication, and enjoyment by fans, is like a light cone where the observer is neither the developer nor the player, but the disc itself: the only time and place in the universe where the game has a single, undisputed reality-- because it is observed by no one.

It may be disconcerting for fans to hear anyone on a development team, no matter how divorced from decisions about themes and stories, to deemphasize the importance of continuity, because that threatens an unexamined viewpoint widely held by many fans of fictional universes: that developers are less creators than they are explorers, heading into undiscovered countries and lighting the way for those who come later. Fans would like their interpretations, for good or ill, to have truth value, as if the Haloverse were a place that existed on some unreachable plane, a place to which the work transports us, but a real place. Continuity and consistency are important for maintaining the suspension of disbelief and immersion that makes that experience of exploration seem real.

It's disconcerting to think that one member of a team may have a different interpretation of the work than another team member. It's disconcerting to think that their own interpretations inform their contribution to the work, because it introduces the kind of inconsistencies that are inevitable in any collaborative work. It's even more disconcerting to hear about how different the work might have been if only other decisions had been made: ideas that were considered but discarded, or alternate paths not taken.

Evil Otto's assertion that there's no point debating canon I think is correct from the developer's perspective. Any one of hundreds of tiny decisions could have made Halo very different from what ended up in the disc, and to all the developers who contributed to it, all with their own personal involvements and interpretations, all of those many possibilities are no more-- nor any less-- "Halo" than what ended up as the contents of the shipping disc. Trying to nail down which materials are canonical and which aren't is like trying to open the box that contains Schrödinger's cat: you might find out the truth, but the truth might be a dead cat.

Fans naturally interpret the work as a product of deterministic, Newtonian mechanics: that it should be possible, from observing the published work, to follow the chain of causality all the way back, and derive everything which came before, and everything that will come after. The hunger and thirst for ancillary materials is the desire to confirm those judgments and predictions. From the perspective of a group of developers, the metaphysics of Halo are quantum in nature: there may be as many possible worlds as their are contributors to those worlds, and trying to nail down which one is "real"-- or recruit fans to live in one instead of another-- may ultimately seem futile and pointless, even if it seems absolutely essential and natural to fans.

I think what I'm ultimately trying to say is that we shouldn't interpret it as a slight to the work that its creators don't have the same attitude toward it, or towards continuity and verisimilitude, as the audience does. It's the fundamental nature of the distinction between author and audience.